Changing Careers? Avoid These Common Mistakes

Are you happy with your work? Do you love what you do, or at least enjoy it a fair amount of time?

Do you often find yourself wondering, should I stay or should go?

Many people have been asking these questions—even more so during the pandemic and its “Great Resignation”—and answering them with a job or career change.

 

Job or Career

First, let’s distinguish between a job and a career.

  • A job is work you perform to earn money. It can be full- or part-time, and short- or long-term.
  • A career, by contrast, can be thought of in two ways. First, it’s a period of time spent in a job or profession, with people usually holding many jobs over their career. Second, it’s an occupation you carry on for a significant period of your life (for some, their entire time in the workplace), often with opportunities for progress and advancement.

It’s usually easier to change jobs in the same field of work (e.g., nursing or marketing). Switching careers is much more difficult and may require going back to school or starting over.

 

The Top Career Change Mistakes

When thinking about or pursuing a career change, we tend to make many mistakes. Here are the most common mistakes:

 

Not getting clarity first.

The mistake here is neglecting the inner work of getting clear about your purpose, values, vision, passions, strengths, aspirations, and preferences. It’s not taking the time for reflection about the sources of your discontent.

 

Not mining your personal history and story.

Are you looking backward a bit so that what’s come before can inform your current choices? Reflecting on the patterns of your life and work can give you clues about who you are, what you love, and what value you can add to organizations.

 

Not working in parallel on the possibility of improving your current career.

By all means explore new options. But don’t give up too soon on improving your current situation. And don’t be too timid about trying new ways of working. If you may be leaving soon anyway, why not take some chances and see if you can make important changes?

 

Leaping without looking.

The mistake here is not doing your homework and digging deeply enough on your alternatives. Be sure to scrutinize your options and gather data on them—ideally with some hands-on projects—before diving in. Otherwise, you risk a rude awakening that your new career may also have major drawbacks for you.

 

Rushing into a new career because you hate your job.

This is problematic because sometimes there are particularities of a job, such as a bad manager or a toxic culture, which you could solve with an organizational change, not a career change.

“Oh, you hate your job? Why didn’t you say so? There’s a support group for that. It’s called EVERYBODY and they meet at the bar.” George Carlin

 

Leaping without a safety net.

When you leap without cash reserves for a reasonable amount of time, it may work out. But it may not. As you get closer to drawing down your reserves, you may get desperate and take something that’s far from ideal—or even worse than what you left. According to a 2021 McKinsey survey, 40 percent of U.S. workers who left their job did so without a new one (higher than other countries in the sample).

 

Going it alone and neglecting your network.

Navigating a career change is a big deal, with many challenges large and small. So it’s a big mistake to try to figure it all out on your own. Your network may be able to help in important and even unexpected ways. There are opportunities that people in your network know about that you couldn’t, as well as experiences and insights they have which they could share with you. But only if you reach out. A related mistake: not tapping a mentor or career coach to provide perspective and guidance. And not leaning on a small group to provide support.

 

Expecting your existing network to be adequate.

A successful career change often requires new people and perspectives from different industries. There may be subtle ways in which your current network is holding you back from making changes. An example: the social pressure you may feel based on your identity in that industry, with your existing level of success. That success can trap you and prevent you from making necessary changes.

“Don’t just focus on the work. Find people who are what you want to be and who can provide support for the transition. But don’t expect to find them in your same old social circles. Break out of your established network. Branch out.”Herminia Ibarra

 

Taking too much direction from others.

Yes, you want to get input from others. Particularly those who have your best interests at heart, and those who have important connections, experiences, or perspectives. But recall that their preferences and perspectives are different from yours. Maybe they want different things for you—or they don’t see clearly what fills you up and what drains you.

 

Overweighting compensation as a consideration.

Sure, money is important. We earn it for our basic needs, and to enjoy comfort and enriching opportunities, if we’re so fortunate. And to give back or make an impact. But don’t neglect the important non-financial compensation that can come from work such as growth, community, and fulfillment. Don’t underweight other important variables, such as fit with values, interests, and strengths.

Salary and bonus are readily quantifiable, but happiness, self-respect, and values alignment are harder to pin down but also essential. Too often, people use money as a scorecard to measure success or status, as if all that matters is salary and wealth (and not health, relationships, growth, contribution, and more).

“Work can provide the opportunity for spiritual and personal, as well as financial, growth. If it doesn’t, we are wasting far too much of our lives on it.”James A. Autry

 

Assuming you must go back to school.

Yes, sometimes you need a degree or credential to make a successful career change. But not always. At some point, real-world experience, street smarts, and valuable skills and mindsets more than make up for the lack of a degree. In many cases, a degree will impart academic knowledge but not prepare you fully for the requirements of the new career. So be sure to look into this before making the investment of time and money.

 

Assuming your degree determines your career.

According to Bill Burnett and Dave Evans in their great book, Designing Your Life, about three-quarters of U.S. college graduates don’t end up working in a career related to their majors. There are tons of wildly successful business CEOs who got liberal arts degrees, from Howard Schultz (Starbucks) and Andrea Jung (Avon) to Michael Eisner (Disney) and John Mackey (Whole Foods). Singer Carrie Underwood studied mass communications. Actress Eva Longoria studied kinesiology. Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin studied Greek and Latin. Higher education is mostly for learning and growing, not pigeonholing us.

 

Thinking and planning too much, and not taking enough action.

The mistake here is “analysis paralysis.” Career change expert Herminia Ibarra says it well: “Act your way into a new way of thinking and being. You cannot discover yourself by introspection. Start by changing what you do. Try different paths. Take action, and then use the feedback from your actions to figure out what you think, feel, and want. Don’t try to analyze or plan your way into a new career.”

 

Doubting your skills and abilities.

Changing careers feels scary, in part because of all the unknowns. You begin to doubt your skills and abilities, assuming you’re so far behind others in that field, when it’s more likely that you have many transferrable skills and abilities. And that being an outsider can be a tremendous asset (e.g., in terms of the objectivity and innovation).

 

Playing it too safe.

If you’re taking on the daunting challenges of career change, why not “shoot the moon” and go for what you really want? Otherwise, what’s the point of it all? You never know what may come of your courage and efforts.

 

Narrowing your options too quickly.

Since it can be overwhelming to consider many possibilities, you may be tempted to narrow your options quickly. There’s a balance here. Yes, there’s a danger of option overwhelm (famously explained by Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice), but there’s also a big risk of missing good options by excluding them prematurely. You generally make better choices when you have lots of good options to choose from, so be sure to ideate openly first before analyzing and narrowing.

 

Thinking it’s too late.

You may dismiss opportunities because you think it’s too late. That can be a big mistake. You never know until you try, and you may have just the right skill set or mindset for the new career. According to surveys, one of the top barriers to career change is a concern about being too old, with 31 percent of workers reporting that. Yet there are countless examples of people who made not just one but multiple career changes later in life. And as people live longer, on average, we’ll need to get better at transitioning into new careers later in life.

 

Holding out for perfection or total clarity about the new destination.

Life is messy. Change is hard. It’s rare that you get perfect clarity or achieve perfection when trying something new. Be willing to act anyway and watch how things start to move. Act, learn, and adjust. Iterate as you go. But get going.

“By far the biggest mistake people make when trying to change careers is to delay taking the first step until they have settled on a destination.”Herminia Ibarra

 

Not testing the new career before leaping.

You can’t figure it out on a spreadsheet. The list of pros and cons may help, but it won’t get you all the way there. You need to roll up your sleeves and start trying things. Gather data. Interview people in fields of interest (ideally including people who liked and succeeded in the career of interest and people who disliked and abandoned the career). Run low-cost probes and simple, quick experiments that will help you experience the profession before taking the leap. Examples:

  • consulting project
  • internship (or a “returnship” for mid-career professionals)
  • job rotations inside your organization
  • job shadowing
  • training in new areas
  • life design interviews (meeting with people who are already doing what you’re interested in doing and hearing their story: asking them questions like how they got to where they are, how they developed the necessary skills, what a typical day looks like, what they like and don’t like about their work, etc.)

 

Assuming you must “climb the ladder” in your career.

You may be in “climbing mode”: striving to move up the ladder of success, focusing on achievement and advancement. For many, this is taken for granted. But is it right for everyone always? No doubt there can be great value in climbing mode: money, status, growth, challenge, and more. But many people feel empty at the top. The key is crafting a career that works for you—given your values, passions, and aspirations—and your current context of your family and other responsibilities.

 

Not playing the long game.

Are you playing the short game? Our culture is geared toward it. It’s alluring. But playing the long game is powerful. That involves taking the necessary steps today to set yourself up for success tomorrow. Avoiding instant gratification and distractions. Making sacrifices in the present for a better future. Building a foundation that will set you up for new opportunities and success.

 

Being so focused on fleeing from a bad situation that you don’t scrutinize your new direction.

When you allow your current work situation to become so bad, or even toxic, you can become desperate even for the slightest change, even if it doesn’t advance you toward the horizon you seek. A better approach: set boundaries and stabilize your current situation while developing an intentional and systematic process for crafting an exciting and rewarding next career chapter. One that’s worth the wait.

 

Giving up too quickly or easily.

Changing careers is hard, so you may be tempted to throw in the towel and settle. Don’t. This is your one life. Stick with it and keep working until it’s great.

 

Not giving it the time and attention it deserves, with a well-designed process.

Changing careers is hard. You may already be busy with a current job, plus all the other things you’re doing. It’s easy to let the career change process slide as you get lost in the daily busyness. Big mistake. You need to create and protect margin in your life to let the career discovery process launch and gather momentum.

 

Not paying attention to market waves.

Do you have functional skills (like digital marketing, event planning, or management) that can be applied in different industries and settings? Almost certainly. Think about market waves—big changes that are rolling through our lives. Examples: clean tech and green energy, conscious capitalism, space exploration, and so many more. What interests you? Are you looking ahead? What are the big economic, social, technological, political, or environmental trends shaping our time and driving new opportunities? As with blackjack players in Las Vegas, you have the advantage of table selection—of choosing where to play, whether it’s in exciting and growing industries or corrupt and dying ones. (For a short video explaining this kind of thinking, see “Find a Wave and Ride It” by Eric Straser.)

“There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune… We must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.” -William Shakespeare (Brutus in “Julius Caesar”)

 

Believing there’s one perfect career for you that you must find.

Perhaps you’re holding back on moving career change exploration because you’re expecting to find THE ONE PERFECT CAREER that will take you to professional nirvana. News flash: in the real world, that’s exceedingly rare. For those who haven’t won the career lottery, crafting a career is an iterative process, with many ups and downs. So let go of the fantasy and get to work.

 

Not taking advantage of transition time.

Are you always jumping from one thing to another without a proper transition? Afraid of the in-between time, when things are fuzzy and emergent, or are you embracing it as an adventure? Stressed about not yet knowing what’s next, or are you finding ways to enjoy yourself despite the uncertainty—appreciating the freedom and the possibilities to explore and have fun with other things (like reconnecting with other people and hobbies) in the meantime? Are you fearing or trusting? As author Bruce Feiler reminds us, sometimes “life is in the transitions.”

“This is now my #1 tip for changing your life. You need to clear a space for the new you to emerge.”Joanna Penn

 

Forcing change on an arbitrary timeline.

Did you pick a deadline out of a hat that may not reflect the reality of the change process? Are you overly optimistic about the timeline? It’s one thing if your cash burn rate gives you a hard deadline. It’s another thing altogether if you’re slavishly following an arbitrary deadline and making big decisions based on it.

 

Jumping prematurely to sweeping changes.

Tempted to bet the farm on your latest idea? You may want to think again. Herminia Ibarra says it beautifully:

“Resist the temptation to start by making a big decision that will change everything in one fell swoop. Use a strategy of small wins, in which incremental gains lead you to more profound changes in the basic assumptions that define your work and life. Accept the crooked path. Small steps lead to big changes, so don’t waste time, energy, and money on finding the ‘answer’ or the ‘lever that, when pushed, will have dramatic effects. Almost no one gets change right on the first try.”Herminia Ibarra

 

Not considering entrepreneurial options.

Did you assume you’ll go work for an established organization and rule out starting a new venture? Have you considered becoming a solopreneur or freelancer? Nowadays, there are so many compelling opportunities in these lanes, plus easy and accessible ways to experiment with them, even as a side hustle.

 

Not factoring in the cost of regret.

As you think about your next move, be sure to account for the cost of coming to the end of your life and looking back with regret for not trying the things you really wanted to do.

“It’s better to fail trying to do what you really care about than to succeed at something else.” Mark Albion

 

Letting fear hold you back from trying for what you really want.

Are you intrigued by something but reluctant to pursue it because of what others might think? This is especially hard today when your social media profiles are open for all to see. It’s natural to fear the judgment of others when you’re in between things. But this can be a real barrier to your progress on big things.

“So please ask yourself: What would I do if I weren’t afraid? And then go do it.”Sheryl Sandberg

 

Postponing what you really want to do.

Putting off the dream? Telling yourself that it’s not the right time? What are you waiting for? Do you risk waiting too long, or even deferring indefinitely? Consider the sage advice of Warren Buffett:

“You ought to be happy where you are working. I always worry about people who say, ‘I’m going to do this for 10 years’ and ‘I’m going to do 10 more years of this.’ That’s a little like saving sex for your old age. Not a very good idea. Get right into what you enjoy.”Warren Buffett

 

Not finding sanctuary.

In today’s world with its frenzied pace, it can be easy to get caught up in the chase and never take time for rest and renewal. Especially when you’re making big decisions in life, you need sanctuary in your life: places and practices of peace that restore your heart. Places of quiet and tranquility where you can get quiet and hear your inner voice. Sanctuary can give you the perspective to make wise choices and to sustain you through the difficulties of the transition.

“What on earth do you do when you no longer have work as an excuse to be hyperactive and avoid the big questions?”Tim Ferriss

 

Telling yourself you have no choice.

Feeling like you’re stuck, perhaps torn between your desires and obligations? Not even trying because you feel trapped? Think again. Here it straight from venture capitalist and executive coach Jerry Colonna:

“I don’t have a problem with what you do, that’s your choice. What I have a problem with is you lying to yourself about why you’re doing the things you’re doing. You have a choice.”Jerry Colonna

 

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There you have it. A summary list of the most common career change mistakes.

Yes, career change is hard. Sometimes brutally so. But it’s also a tremendous opportunity for you to take your life back and have fun while doing great things. It’s well worth the effort to navigate these challenges intentionally.

Wishing you well with it, and please reach out if you’d like some help.

Gregg

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Postscript: Inspirations on Career Change

  • “Big career decisions don’t come with a map, but all you need is a compass. In an unpredictable world, you can’t make a master plan. You can only gauge whether you’re on a meaningful path. The right next move is the one that brings you a step closer to living your core values.” -Adam Grant
  • “Everything seems to conspire to keep us where we are. That is why so many people remain stuck in the first half or, at best, flounder in a perpetual halftime. Life seems more comfortable in known, familiar territory, even when we are fairly certain something better awaits us out there.” -Bob Buford
  • “An unfulfilled vocation drains the color from a man’s entire existence.” -Honore de Balzac
  • “The thought once occurred to me that if one wanted to crush and destroy a man entirely, to mete out to him the most terrible punishment… all one would have to do would be to make him do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning.” -Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • “An easy way to pick the wrong career is to put your image above your interests and identity. A motivating job isn’t the one that makes you look important. It’s the one that makes you feel alive. Meaningful work isn’t about impressing others. It’s about expressing your values.” -Adam Grant
  • “While we should dream big, sometimes we need to make smaller moves and small experiments to build confidence and gather data and grow more organically in a new direction…. There is no real way to know the answers up to the front of what to pursue next in our careers unless we’re running small tests and learning from them.” -Jenny Blake
  • “So many of us choose our paths in life out of fear disguised as practicality.” -Jim Carrey
  • “In a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.” -Warren Buffett

 

Appendix: Data on Job and Career Changes

While there’s a great deal of data out there about the frequency of job changes, there’s not much out there on career change for two reasons: first, disagreement about definitions; second, career change is much harder to track and measure.

For example, 41 percent of employees were considering leaving their current employer in 2021, according to a Microsoft Work Trend Index survey of 31,092 full-time employed or self-employed workers across 31 markets. (Data are similar for the U.K. and Ireland, according to a recent survey.) But that addresses potential job changes, not career changes.

According to a September 2021 MetLife survey of 2,000 U.S. workers, 56 percent of women say they’ve thought about career change during the pandemic—twice as many who felt that way in summer 2020. In addition, 48 percent of women report that the pandemic has negatively impacted their career path.

According to Zippia, a business skills training company:

  • The average U.S. worker has 12 jobs throughout a lifetime.
  • S. workers have an average tenure of about 4.1 years with a single employer.
  • 37 percent of the U.S. workforce changed or lost their job in 2020.
  • 51 percent of U.S. workers said in 2018 that they change jobs every one to five years, up from 42 percent in 2017 and 34 percent in 2016.
  • Job change frequency varies dramatically by age in the U.S.:
    • people between 18 and 24 years old change jobs about 5.7 times during that period
    • people between 25 and 34 change jobs about 2.4 times
    • people between 35 and 44 change jobs about 2.9 times
    • people between 45 and 52 change jobs about 1.9 times
  • The average age of a major career change is 39 years old.
  • 58 percent of people say they’d be willing to take a pay cut to make a major career change.
  • 57 percent of workers said that the top barrier to career change is a lack of financial security. (The other top barriers are lack of clarity about what career to enter, lack of required education, and concerns about being too old.)

Image source: Zippia

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, facilitator, and speaker on life design and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great”). Sign up for Gregg’s newsletter or check out his TEDx talk.

Topics: career, career path, career design, career change, career development, career change mistakes, life design, personal growth, personal development, self-leadership

Golden Handcuffs: Stuck in a Job You Don’t Like?

two hands in golden handcuffs

Stuck in a job you don’t like? Enduring it? Too often, we do it for the money, the security, or the prestige, but not for its intrinsic value. We stick it out, trapped by golden handcuffs.

Golden handcuffs are financial incentives designed to keep workers at an organization. We may long to leave a job and set out on a new adventure, but the thought of giving up the salary, bonus, or other perks makes us stay.

It helps to view it from our own perspective. Sometimes the golden handcuffs are self-imposed. They can come in the form of lifestyle choices (regarding possessions and consumption) that inhibit us from doing what we want with our life. We become financially tethered to a job that’s not a good fit.

There’s nothing wrong with money, or making a lot of it, or enjoying the fruits of our hard work. The problem comes when we’re chained to a job we don’t like and sacrifice our quality of life for huge swaths of time. When we’re stuck with a manager we don’t respect or can’t stand. Or at an organization with a poor culture, or toxic employees. When we’re stressed or burned out but feel trapped.

We may feel stuck due to our fear of the unknown. Or we fear a loss of status, or the judgment of others if we make a change.

 

What’s Really Going On

These decisions have many factors. We have expenses. There are things we want to do in life, and they cost money. We have bills to pay. We have a family to feed, or trips we’ve been dreaming of, or kids’ college and retirement to save for. Fair enough.

But we rationalize. We accept other people’s definition of success and live on their terms instead of our own. We make big decisions based on the assumption that success is the point of life—or that status will give us what we want.

In many cases, the problem is compounded by overconsumption and “lifestyle creep”: when our expenses or spending go up as our discretionary income increases.

Too many of us are living paycheck to paycheck (54% of U.S. consumers, according to recent data). According to a 2021 CNBC report, the average American has $90,460 in debt. People want that bigger house, that nicer car, that better neighborhood. They struggle to keep up with mortgage payments, car loans, credit card debt, student loans, and more.

 

Related Traps

There are many reasons we may be stuck in golden handcuffs. Our life and work choices are complex. Related traps include:

  • Climbing mode: focusing so much on climbing the ladder of success, and on achievement and advancement, that we never take time for discovering who we are, what we love, and what we long to do in the world
  • Conform: conforming to societal conventions or conventional paths instead of blazing our own path in life
  • Ego: being self-absorbed and caught up in our own stuff, without focusing on something larger than ourselves
  • Emptiness: feeling empty about what we’re doing
  • Outer-driven: being driven by the expectations of others
  • Prestige: hunger for status, prestige, or approval
  • Hedonic treadmill”: the tendency to remain at a set level of happiness despite a change in fortune or the achievement of goals
  • The Comparison Game: constantly comparing ourselves to others and judging our worth by how we stack up on superficial metrics
  • False Metrics of Success: measuring success in cold and calculating ways, such as income, net worth, position, power, or number of followers

What to Do about It

OK, we know that golden handcuffs can be a big problem. What to do about it?

First, reduce spending and start saving to free up some margin in your life. https://greggvanourek.com/do-you-have-margin/

“Do not save what is left after spending; instead spend what is left after saving.”Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO, Berkshire Hathaway

Second, build up not only your emergency fund but also your cash runway for when you want or need to make a work change. When Seth Goldman was a young professional working in finance, he was “living lean” and driving an old car and foregoing the amenities that his friends were spending a lot of money on. By doing so, he was able to give himself a much longer runway when he decided to take the entrepreneurial leap and start his company, Honest Tea.

Third, invest in yourself—in your knowledge and skills, and in your network. Such an investment pays the biggest dividends over time.

Fourth, go out and do some “life design interviews”: find people you admire who do work that interests you and ask them about their career path and life trajectory, including what they do and how they got there.

Fifth, spend time with new people in the fields you’re interested in exploring—learning new things and adopting new mindsets. Sometimes the people in our current situation are the ones holding us back.

Sixth, recognize that the career design and change process is usually messy and iterative, not a quick and clear process. Get curious and active. Embrace the transition process with all its possibilities and mysteries—including the possibility of recrafting your current work to be a better fit and a source of meaning and fulfillment as well as income.

Seventh, play it smart—with a healthy balance between wisdom and urgency. Don’t jump off a financial cliff. Invest thought and time in a smart process. At the same time, don’t wait too long. (The more common mistake is waiting too long—or never making a change—not moving too quickly.)

Finally, once you’ve decided your new direction, be bold and take massive action. Be flexible with approach, since reality rarely lines up with our plans, but show faith in your convictions.

Work comprises a huge part of your life. Why not craft it according to your values and aspirations?

Reflection Questions

  • Are you trapped by golden handcuffs?
  • If so, how long have you been in this trap?
  • What will you do about it, starting today?

 

More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living

 

Topics: life design, personal growth, personal development, self-leadership, success, golden handcuffs, career, career design.

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Postscript: Inspirations for Escaping the Golden Handcuffs

  • “It’s better to fail trying to do what you really care about than to succeed at something else.” -Mark Albion
  • “Work can provide the opportunity for spiritual and personal, as well as financial, growth. If it doesn’t, we are wasting far too much of our lives on it.” -James A. Autry
  • “So many of us choose our paths in life out of fear disguised as practicality.” -Jim Carrey
  • “I don’t have a problem with what you do, that’s your choice. What I have a problem with is you lying to yourself about why you’re doing the things you’re doing. You have a choice.” -Jerry Colonna
  • “If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.” -Stephen R. Covey
  • “Every worker needs to escape the wrong job.” -Peter Drucker
  • “Money sometimes costs too much.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • “In our time, we workers are being called to reexamine our work: how we do it; whom it is helping or hurting; what it is we do; and what we might be doing if we were to let go of our present work and follow a deeper call.” -Matthew Fox
  • “For too long we have been dreaming a dream from which we are now waking up: the dream that if you just improve the socio-economic status of people, everything will be OK, people will become happy. The truth is that as the struggle for survival has subsided, the question has emerged: survival for what? Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.” -Victor Frankl
  • “And then there is the most dangerous risk of all—the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.” -Randy Komisar

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and facilitator on life design and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives  (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great”). Sign up for his newsletter or check out his TEDx talk.

Tired of Settling? How to Light Your Life and Work on Fire

Settling for “good enough” instead of what you really want? Getting comfortable with the ordinary? Letting others treat you poorly? Suffering through a poor work situation? Tired of working with people who don’t want to excel or don’t share your values? Playing small, even though you know there’s something bigger possible for you?

Time out. This is your life. Your one and only life, with an uncertain duration and no guarantees. Time to take it back.

“There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa

Why Do We Settle?

If you’re settling, you’re not alone. It’s a common trap. There are many reasons we settle:

1. Fear: We’re afraid of looking bad, of not living up to expectations, of failing. We fear what other people will think or say. So we let these fears box our choices, keeping us squarely in the safe and conventional spaces even though we long for something more. The kicker is that we’re often misreading people and conjuring scenarios of their disappointment and rejection when in fact they’re not even thinking of us, or they have a wildly different take. Too often, we’re just listening to phantom voices in our head whispering about unlikely worst cases.

“So many of us choose our paths in life out of fear disguised as practicality.” Jim Carrey, actor, comedian, writer, producer

2. Self-Deception: We’re brilliant at hiding the truth from ourselves. We rationalize: It’s only for a while. What choice do I have? In these excuses, we hide from the distressing realization that we’re settling for something less than desirable.

“The worst of all deceptions is self-deception.”Plato, classical Greek philosopher

3. Conformity: We yield to parental expectations, social norms, and conventional paths instead of blazing our own path. We worry about the harsh judgment we think may come if we stand up or stand out, so we shrink back into the facelessness of the crowd. Sure, there’s safety in the crowd. But also boredom—and regret.

4. Inertia: Change is hard. We get stuck in the quicksand of questions: What to do instead? How to decide? How to make it work? Can I really give up the safety of what I have now? The “switching costs” (of changing jobs, careers, degrees, locations, etc.) can be high—especially in the short term, with no way to know the long-term payoff. So we stick with a lesser path because it’s easier to stay the course. But at what cost in terms of lost opportunities and sense of pride and satisfaction for testing our mettle and venturing forth into the terrifying beauty of possibility?

“Never be passive about your life…  ever, ever.”Robert Egger, social entrepreneur, activist, and author

5. Not tending to the fire: We’re all born with a zest for life (see how babies and children experience the world) and a capacity for dreaming big (go back and visit your childhood dreams). These aspirations require energy, but too often we’ve let that energy fizzle out over time by burying ourselves in busywork, escaping into mindless distractions, numbing ourselves, and making excuses.

There are indeed big obstacles. Not all are fortunate enough to have choices, or a savings cushion, or the ability to escape poverty, financial insecurity, or other debilitating hardship. But these questions are relevant to all, regardless of circumstances, because even in the hardest circumstances we have agency and possibilities for change, whether by hard work, grit, adjusting our approach, or upgrading our skills and outlook.

Often the real issue is lack of clarity about what we want and how we can move forward in the face of uncertainty. Trepidation about being who we really are. Setting the bar low so we won’t be disappointed if we fail to reach it. We lack a clear and compelling why. We have no audacious aspiration to rekindle the fire.

That’s not all. More things contribute to settling:

The Flip Side: Dangers of Not Settling?

We should pause here and note that there’s a danger of taking this line of thinking about not settling too far. We can get so focused on striving for something better that we lose our capacity to be grateful for what we have now. We can get caught up in obsessively chasing success due to an unhealthy need for validation and recognition for achievements.

There’s a danger to some of swapping a life of settling for a life of anxiety and workaholism, detached from family, friends, health, and the simple pleasures: nature, hobbies, quiet time. We can risk losing our capacity for quiet reflection, mindfulness, and pausing for renewal. We should be wary of getting too caught up in “climbing mode.”

Ceaseless and obsessive striving can prevent us from living a full life with a healthy array of meaningful aspects, like marriage, family, career, health, friendships, community, and more. In his book, On Settling, social philosopher Robert E. Goodin notes that if we settle on some things, we’re better positioned to concentrate on others that are more important. Otherwise, our efforts may be too diffuse and never gain traction.

We can have bold aspirations for a better future but still be grateful for what we have and not too attached to a future outcome that’s unlikely to solve everything in our life and bring us unending joy. Life doesn’t work that way. Writer Chris Guillebeau creatively flips the script from the “pursuit of happiness” to what he calls the “happiness of pursuit.”

So yes, we mustn’t turn our striving into a compulsive crusade. But for many, the bigger danger is settling.

 

The Icarus Deception

The myth of Icarus is relevant here. You may recall the warning Daedalus gave to his son, Icarus, after constructing wings from feathers and wax to escape Crete: “Don’t fly too close to the sun.”

The big danger is hubris, right? Of having the sun melt your wings of wax if you get too full of yourself and fly too high.

But author Seth Godin points out that Daedalus warned Icarus first of the danger of complacency—the danger of flying too low such that the damp sea affects his wings and causes him to crash into the water. The first danger is about flying too low. We must guard against that too.

So what to do?

 

How to Stop Settling

There are several things we can do to stop settling and reignite the flame in our life and work:

1. Take full responsibility. Be a “LIFE Entrepreneur,” taking ownership of your life, and recognizing your agency. Take your life back. Stop making excuses. No one’s coming to the rescue.

“Some people don’t just live: they lead a life. They don’t sit around waiting for a lucky break. They create opportunities. They go after their dreams and bring them to life…. They develop a vision of the good life, devise a plan for how to attain it, go for it, and check their progress along the way. As with any great effort, their work is never done but ever-evolving and, often, inspiring to those around them. Welcome to the territory of life entrepreneurs.” -Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek, LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives

2. Summon the courage to try. Act in spite of your fears. That of course sounds easier than it is in practice. How to punch through the fear? It helps to realize that most fears are phantoms, unlikely to play out in real life like the nightmare in our head. Also, be sure to account for the cost of coming to the end of your life and looking back with regret for not trying. It also helps if you do what’s next on the list below, to give you a sense of drive and direction:

3. Develop a clear and compelling personal purpose, values, and vision so that you’re clear about where you want to go in your life and work, and how and why:

  • Purpose: why you’re here, and what gives you a sense of meaning and significance—including by serving others
  • Values: what’s most important? What are your core beliefs and principles that guide your decisions and behavior?
  • Vision: what you aspire to achieve in the future, and what success looks like for you

4. Start. Get momentum by trying things. Learn what works (and what doesn’t) and notch small wins. Use this to build toward taking massive action.

5. Build vitality. Develop physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health, wellness, energy, and strength. Be intentional about nourishing habits, rituals, and routines, with visual cues to remind you about what to do and where and when. Choose intentionally what you do, with whom, and what you consume. Eventually you become the kind of person who doesn’t settle without having to think about it so much.

6. Let go of limiting beliefs. Change your mindset. Upgrade your mental operating system. How? Spend time with people you admire. Read books that challenge and inspire you. Take courses that help you develop new skills and abilities. Listen to uplifting podcasts. Work with a mentor, coach, or therapist to shed vestiges of the past that no longer serve you.

7. Set and maintain high standards for yourself. As with our children, we tend to rise or fall to the standards we set. Set deadlines. Focus on results. Hold yourself accountable. Be systematic about learning, development, and continuous improvement. Be clear about the kind of life you seek and commit to it. Choose the life you want, and then get to work crafting it with a hopeful and determined heart.

Temperature Check

How’s your fire? Is it burning hot, lukewarm, or flaming out? If you’re settling, resolve to do what you can with what you have to start turning up the heat.

Reflection Questions

  • Are you settling in any important aspects of your life (family, health, career, etc.)?
  • If so, what will you do about it? When and how?
  • Who can you ask for help?
  • What works for you when it comes to reigniting the flame?
  • What are you waiting for?

 

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Postscript: Quotes on Settling

  • “It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten-track for ourselves.” -Henry David Thoreau
  • “Too many of us are not living our dreams because we are living our fears.” -Les Brown
  • “If you decide to live in the arena, you will get your ass kicked. You can choose comfort, or you can choose courage, but you can’t have both.” -Brene Brown, researcher and author
  • “The secret of man’s being is not only to live but to have something to live for.” -Fyodor Dostoevsky, Russian novelist and philosopher
  • “There are people who put their dreams in a little box and say, ‘Yes, I’ve got dreams, of course. I’ve got dreams.’ Then they put the box away and bring it out once in a while to look in it, and yep, they’re still there. These are great dreams, but they never even get out of the box.” -Erma Bombeck, American writer
  • “We have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings. And the fear of our deepest cravings keeps them suspect, keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, and leads us to settle for… many facets of our own oppression.” -Audre Lorde, American writer, feminist, and civil rights activist
  • “We ask ourselves, ‘How am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some of us. It is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” -Marianne Williamson

 

More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living

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Gregg Vanourek is writer, teacher, facilitator, and speaker on life design and leadership. He’s co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk.

Choice Overload and Career Transitions

We all face transitions in life and work. The transition from school to work. From one job or career to another. To marriage and family. To a new home. To midlife. To retirement.

So we need to get good at transitions. And that depends on getting good at making choices. Like: What’s next?

Sometimes we get bogged down in choice overload.

 

The Paradox of Choice

Psychologist Barry Schwartz calls it the “paradox of choice.” He argues that the freedom to choose is one of the main roots of unhappiness today. Choice overload leads to anxiety and “analysis paralysis,” in which we become frozen in undecidedness. We fear making the wrong choice or fear missing out (FOMO) on the “right” choice.

He cites a fascinating “jam study” in which a store gave shoppers a range of six jams to choose among, and a range of 24 jams to another set of shoppers. The surprising findings: shoppers were ten times more likely to purchase jam from a range of six jams than from the much larger set. Being overloaded with choices can easily lead to not making a choice due to overwhelm.

One of the great inhibitors of good choosing is fear: fear of looking bad, fear of not living up to expectations, fear of failing, and more. Fear of leaving a stable job with a stable income. Fear of striking out on our own.

“Most people are controlled by fear of what other people think. And fear of what, usually, their parents or their relatives are going to say about what they’re doing. A lot of people go through life like this, and they’re miserable.”Janet Wojcicki, professor, anthropologist, and epidemiologist

This fear can lead to inertia: resistance to needed changes in life or work. It can mean sticking with a sub-optimal path, often because it feels easier to stay the current course.

“It takes, on average, three years from the time a person decides to leave the company until the day he or she walks out the door. Those are not good or productive years. For me those years were in limbo.” -Harriet Rubin, publishing executive

So we end up settling: compromising or settling for “good enough” instead of what we really want or deserve.

 

Dysfunctional Beliefs

There’s a flipside danger too. When it comes to making choices, we tend to have dysfunctional beliefs that prevent us from seeing things clearly and accurately, and from taking appropriate action. According to Bill Burnett and Dave Evans from the the Stanford Life Design Lab, here are some of these dysfunctional beliefs:

  • I have to find the one right idea.
  • To be happy, I must make the right choice.
  • I need to comprehensively research all aspects of my plan.

Here we face a dilemma:

It’s a big mistake to focus too much too early on only one idea or possibility.

Why? When we prematurely settle on one idea, we almost always end up with a sub-optimal outcome. Our brains trick us into seeing only the good (the possibilities, the upside) and into ignoring the bad (the risks and downsides). It’s called confirmation bias, and it’s a huge and well researched problem.

What’s more, our lives and our future aren’t an engineering problem or mathematical equation that can be solved by finding “the answer.”

There is no one perfect answer out there. We must craft our lives and work as we go, as intentionally and adaptively as possible.

It’s also a mistake to bring a very large number of options in our consideration set.

That may trap us in choice overload and the paradox of choice problem noted above.

 

Get Good at Choosing

Brainstorm several options and then don’t get trapped in analysis paralysis. Instead have a bias toward action and get moving by learning as much as you can as quickly and cheaply as possible about your options. Talk to people. Try it with a side hustle. Take a course. Build a prototype or a low-cost probe.

Then decide. Once you do, don’t dwell and don’t agonize. Dive into your new reality and make adjustments as you go. Keep learning and testing.

Then, you’ll find yourself at a new set of choices. In the meantime, you’ll start to get good at choosing. And that will help you with everything you do.

 

More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and facilitator on life design and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.” Twitter: @gvanourek

Tips for New Graduates on Life, Work, and Making Big Decisions

With graduation season upon us, new graduates have much to celebrate after navigating a brutal year. Now they face a big transition from school to work (or further school, or gap year, or other pursuits). Here are tips to help them craft their life and work–and make big decisions that will serve them well.

Your work now is to find your work. Don’t commit prematurely to the first path you walk. Don’t over-invest in or over-identify with a professional area without having pressure-tested the reality of it against your initial conception of it. Don’t satisfice. Create an intentional process for your search—a quest to discover your calling—and use “low-cost probes” to try things so you can learn where there is a good fit with your strengths, passions, values, purpose, and opportunities, and where there isn’t. Work hard in what you do, but don’t forget to work on finding what you want to do and where you can make a difference.

Avoid making choices for the wrong reasons. You’re probably under a lot of pressure, both from yourself and others. As you look at work options, consider not only external motivations such as income and status but also internal ones such as meaning, values, and fulfillment. You’ll spend lots of time at work, so be intentional about finding a good fit for you. Don’t get caught up too much in climbing mode (focusing so much on climbing the ladder of success, and on achievement and advancement) without also complementing that with discover mode (discovering who you are, what you love, and what you long to do in the world).

Work on something that matters. Your days, weeks, and months all add up to something called your life, so make sure it’s something you’re excited about now and that you’ll be proud of when you look back. How will you have served others and made a difference?

Choose work where you can drink lessons out of a fire hose—where you can learn a ton from great people and daunting challenges. Invest in learning, growth, and development, and lean into challenge. These pay big dividends that compound over time.

Lead your life—your whole life—including your professional endeavors, your health, mind, body, spirit, relationships, education, and whatever else you choose to pursue in life. Do you think you can presume to lead others without learning to lead yourself first?

Play the long game. These days it’s easy to fall into the trap of playing the short game. Our culture is geared toward it. With our devices, we’re developing the attention span of a gnat. We swipe and scroll. We get fidgety with a few seconds of down-time. The power of the long game is astonishing.

There will be a reckoning for your choices. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day grind, with so much to capture your attention. Don’t forget to look up and see the larger sweep of things. Some day in the future, you may find yourself wondering:

How did I get here?

Is this what I wanted?

Did I choose this?

Is this a good life for me?

Get good at taking stock of the path you’re on. And be brutally honest with yourself. Better to face hard questions now. They get harder the longer you wait. Be like the buffalo and run into the storm, not away from it.

Here’s to celebrating all you’ve done so far, thanking all those who’ve helped you get where you are, and blazing your own path in life with courage and conviction. You’ll thank yourself for it someday.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on personal development and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.” Twitter: @gvanourek

Are You Playing the Long Game?

These days it’s easy to fall into the trap of playing the short game. Our culture is geared toward it. With our devices, we’re developing the attention span of a gnat. We swipe and scroll. We get fidgety with a few seconds of down-time.

The power of the long game is astonishing, but the short game is alluring. We see it in many realms.

 

We see it in business.

Clayton Christensen noted, “If you study the root causes of business disasters, over and over you’ll find a predisposition toward endeavors that offer immediate gratification.”

 

We see it in startups.

Steve Blank notes that many startups incur what he calls “organizational debt”: “all the people/culture compromises made to ‘just get it done’ in the early stages of a startup.” Common examples: a lack of good onboarding and training, missing job descriptions, chaotic compensation, puny HR budgets, and more. While these compromises can help keep the cash burn rate down, they “can turn a growing company into a chaotic nightmare.”

 

We see it in our climate.

We’re making a harrowing gamble with our children’s future as we fail to address the gathering dangers of climate change.

 

We see it in our health.

Many of us are sitting longer, eating poorly, sleeping less, and pinging through life in a state of perpetual busyness or burnout.

 

We see it in our relationships.

Caught up in our careers, we lose touch with family and friends—something we’re likely to regret. Australian nurse Bronnie Ware, working in palliative care, found that two of the top regrets of people as they approached their death were: wishing they hadn’t worked so hard, and wishing they had stayed in touch with their friends.

 

We see it in parenting.

Years ago, a colleague of mine, also a father of young children, said a few words that changed me as a parent: “They’re only young once.”

 

We see it in our careers.

When we’re young and in school, we face pressures about what we’re going to do next, with expectations from parents and peers, and without much basis for making big decisions. Too often we make big decisions based on the pressures of the moment in ways that don’t stand the test of time. We follow the herd into that high-status profession. Or we choose solely based on the paycheck.

 

We see it in life.

One day there will be a reckoning for the choices we’ve made. Did we fall into the following short-game traps?

Conforming to what others expect.

Drifting through life without direction.

Staying in a job we don’t like.

Getting nowhere (or nowhere good) in a professional hamster wheel.

Deferring our dreams because it’s “not the right time.”

Settling forgood enough.”

Continuing to climb even though we’re on the wrong ladder.

 

The idea of playing the long game isn’t new.

Thousands of years ago, Aristotle advised, “Plan with your whole life in mind.”

Now more than ever we need to reorient our life and work to the long game.

 

Questions for Reflection

  • In what areas—business, health, relationships, parenting, careers, life—are you playing the short game?
  • What ideas do you have to start making changes?
  • Who can you connect with for help and accountability?

 

More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living

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Gregg Vanourek is writer, teacher, speaker, and facilitator on life design and leadership. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training and development venture. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living. Or check out his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.”